Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Balance of Power

By Jim Hanas

MARCH 15, 1999:  After several years of using court injunctions and equipment seizures to fight off a surge in the number of unlicensed low-power radio stations operating around the country, the Federal Communications Commission has finally turned to considering the alternative: legalizing them.

On January 28th, the commission adopted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking — endorsed by four of the FCC’s five commissioners — seeking comment on a plan “to license new 1,000-watt and 100-watt low-power FM (LPFM) radio stations.” The FCC is also seeking comment on establishing a third class of microradio stations at power levels from 1 to 10 watts.

In the last year and a half, the FCC has closed down several hundred unlicensed microbroadcasters nationwide, some of them by seizing their equipment, as was the case with the shutdown of Free Radio Memphis last September and its roving offshoot Black Cat Radio a few months later. But with both of those cases still mired in litigation, the FCC is showing signs of coming around to the unlicensed microbroadcasters’ way of thinking.

“As consolidation in the broadcast industry closes the doors of opportunity for new entrants,” reads a joint statement about the current proposal from FCC Chairman William Kennard and commissioner Gloria Tristani that might have been lifted from any number of “free radio” manifestos, “we must find ways to use the broadcast spectrum more efficiently so that we can bring more voices to the airwaves.”

Some aren’t as enthusiastic as the FCC, however, particularly those whose voices currently monopolize the airwaves. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the trade organization that represents the interests of the commercial broadcasting industry in Washington, unequivocally opposes the proposal, arguing that it will “likely cause devastating interference to existing broadcasters.”

Michael Bracy, executive director of the D.C.-based Low Power Radio Coalition, concedes that allowing low-power FM stations onto the spectrum will raise substantial technical and regulatory issues, but he says that “the first stage is hopefully getting a consensus that this is something worth doing, that these are issues worth resolving.”

The Low Power Radio Coalition was formed late last year with the aim of advocating the FCC’s proposed changes — in part by marshaling the support of independent musicians and labels, educators, college radio organizations, and others who could benefit from low-power licensing. Bracy emphasizes the importance of the current window for speaking out in favor of low power, and in opposition to the substantial lobbying clout of the NAB.

“For the first time we have the opportunity, during the comment period, to weigh in at the FCC and on Capitol Hill about why low-power radio is important,” he says.

That the FCC is considering making room for low-power radio at all is something of a watershed, given the Commission’s recent record of cracking down on unlicensed broadcasters and its general acquiescence, evident for at least a decade, to the will of the broadcast industry.

Bracy ascribes the change both to the grassroots pressure exerted by the activism of unlicensed broadcasters and to the initiative of Kennard, who has been publicly sympathetic to the movement since taking office in late 1997.

Despite the apparent progress, however, some free-radio activists sound even less enthused than the NAB.

“Not a whole lot,” says Free Radio Berkeley’s Stephen Dunifer when asked what he thinks of the FCC’s proposal. Dunifer, who is arguably the father of the microradio movement, managed to keep his unlicensed Bay Area station on the air, and in the courts, for more than two years until the FCC won a ruling against him last summer. He is currently appealing the decision.

The problem with the proposal, he says, is that while it allows the licensing of low-power stations, it makes no room for such stations, particularly in urban areas where the FM dial is already filled to capacity.

“It’s too little too late,” says Dunifer. “The corporations have already stolen the airwaves. It’s like locking the barn after the horse is long gone.”

Dunifer instead calls for the FCC to do something “significant to redress the egregious imbalance in who’s on the air and who’s not,” such as expanding the FM band and setting the additional dial aside for noncommercial low-power broadcasts.

Locally, microbroadcasters are taking a cautious, wait-and-see attitude toward the FCC’s plan.

“It’s a step in the right direction if it actually happens,” says Dennis Henke of the Constructive Interference Collective, the group behind Free Radio Memphis and Black Cat Radio.

“The other debate is whether or not they’re going to allow amnesty to people, like us, who have been broadcasting in the past or have been arrested or have had equipment confiscated,” adds Henke. “It’ll be an interesting process.”

The Commission is accepting comments on its low-power radio proposal until April 12th. To find out more about the FCC’s proposal, or to file a comment, visit http://www.fcc.gov/mmb/prd/lpfm.


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